The Scaffolding of Theory

My favorite internet comment of all time was one I saw way back in middle school, or possibly my first year of high school. It was in a music discussion forum the name of which I am too lazy to recall, and it read simply “Remember everyone! Music theory is a theory and not a fact!”, as tho someone somewhere out there was taking a valiant stand against the forces of analysis in favor of some kind of sonic creationism.

Read More

Infinite Canvas

Late in season 9 of the United States version of The Office, there is a scene where Oscar Martinez, a gay accountant, comforts Angela Martin, another accountant, who is sobbing in his car over the ruins of her love life. On its own, with minimal setup, it would be a moving scene, but coming as it does after nearly a decade of storytelling, it has a depth that can only come from layers and layers of backstory. Oscar and Angela have been bouncing off each other for years, sometimes as friends, more often as enemies, and the accumulated weight of that past gives the scene in Oscar’s car an oomph that would be impossible to attain otherwise.

Read More

An Update on Pronouns

I generally don’t talk about the specifics of my personal life all that much on this blog, mostly because I think my actual life is pretty uninteresting. I mean, I’m obviously very free with my opinions on the media that I consume, but there’s a difference between knowing I had a lot of feelings about The Woman in Gold and knowing how many dates I’ve been on in LA, and with whom. I think I’m kind of a boring person, and I also put a pretty high value on privacy, at least as far as bloggers go. But this is one of those times where I need to step out from behind my veil of passwords and address something explicitly:

I’m trans. Specifically nonbinary, more specifically agender. They/them/theirs is the only correct set of pronouns to use when referring to me in the third person. This is not optional.

Read More

A List

I’m interviewing at Tisch this weekend, so I don't have it in me to write a full post, but given what I’m up to, I thought it might be fun to do something related to that. So here, just for kicks, is a list of every piece or composer that I discussed in my application to that program:

  • Benjamin Britten + Myfanwy Piper: The Turn of the Screw
  • Olivier Messiaen, generally. (link is to the Turangalîla-Symphonie, which i will have seen by the time this post goes live and definitely will not yet be over)
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton
  • Balázs Béla + Bartók Béla: Bluebeard's Castle
  • Scott Frankel + Michael Korie + Doug Wright: Grey Gardens (this used to be on Spotify but it's not anymore, which makes me SUPER SAD. There’s a bootleg recording of it on YouTube, but I’m not going to link to it)
  • Gérard Grisey: Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (link is to a YouTube recording that I haven’t actually listened to)
  • Nick Mulvey: “Juramidam”
  • Jonathan Larson: Rent
  • James Lapine + William Finn: Falsettoland
  • Duncan Sheik + Steven Sater: Spring Awakening
  • Tom Kitt + Brian Yorkey: If/Then
  • Jeanine Tesori (link is to Fun Home)
  • Various writers under the umbrella of The Industry: Hopscotch (I’m . . . not even sure it’s possible to record this in a meaningful way; the link is to a description of the project)

Say what you will about the application itself, I don’t think anyone can accuse me of an over-narrow focus. The regular posting schedule begins again on Monday!

The Melting Point of Birds

I have been internally screaming with excitement about tonight’s concert at Walt Disney Hall for just shy of a full calendar year. There’s only one piece on the program: Olivier Messiaen’s sprawling 1974 Des canyons aux étoiles... (From the canyons to the stars...)

Describing a work by Olivier Messiaen as “unusual” or “bizarre” is roughly like describing the Pope as “Catholic”, but even in Messiaen’s odd menagerie, Des canyons is something else. Despite his being French and not particularly nationalistic, Messiaen was commissioned to write the work to commemorate the United States bicentennial, a fact that I’ve never really seen explored or explained. Even tho the genocidal waves of American Manifest Destiny had yet to spread that far west in 1776, Messiaen took his inspiration from the weather-worn landscapes of southern Utah and the birds that are native to the region. (The inclusion of birds is par for the course for Messiaen — it’s much more unusual when his works don’t include transcriptions of their songs.) But, as the title implies, he also looked up, not metaphorically, but literally, to specific stars that are visible in the night sky.

The result is a 90-minute concerto for horn, piano, glockenspiel, and xylorimba that includes movement titles like “Interstellar call” and “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran”. In addition to the solo percussionists, the piece calls for a bevy of ensemble players, covering everything from a wind machine (which gets several extended solos) to the geophone, an instrument of Messiaen’s own invention that calls for a drum filled with thousands of lead pellets to imitate the sound of dry shifting earth. Despite the size of the orchestra, there are numerous points over the course of the work where the music just . . . stops, and silence fills the air. At one point, some of the brass players remove the mouthpieces from their instruments and buzz on them as tho warming up backstage. I am not making any of this up.

Read More

Fun With Numbers: Spotify Year In Review

So Spotify recently released a nifty little year in review widget, which I find completely irresistible. (No one is shocked.) In addition to a fun nostalgia trip and some hilarious metadata missteps, tho, it does reveal some interesting things about my listening habits, so for my last post of 2015, I want to dig into those a little.

Read More

To My Rationalist Friends

We need to have a talk.

Over the past two weeks, there have been a number of demonstrations on college campus around this country protesting incidents of racist bias. As is pretty par for the course by now, these protests have generated a whole slew of online articles, which, when posted to Facebook and Twitter, have, in turn, launched some pretty sprawling comment threads. And I’ve seen you posting on some of those comment threads, and honestly, it’s been painful. You’ve come in asking questions that seem to you to be perfectly reasonable, only to be met with replies that seem prickly and unwelcoming, at times almost aggressively uninterested (it seems to you) in calm, rational, intellectual discussion of the issue at hand. Affronted by this brusque rebuff, things often escalate, and lo! a flame war is born.

This isn’t a pattern that’s new to the past two weeks. It’s something I’ve been seeing since, well, pretty much since I first signed up for social media. I am very sure I have been that person more than once in the past.

Today, I’m going to take you at your word. I’m going to assume that you genuinely don’t understand why people (and, let’s be honest, it’s usually “marginalized people on the left”) are so worked up about the latest clash in the college campus culture wars, that you’re asking questions from a place of open-minded naïveté in a good-faith attempt to understand what’s going on. (If that’s not the case, if you feign ignorance just so you can get a rise out of the other side for fun, you are petty and cruel and should feel ashamed. If you deliberately cause pain to other people solely for your own enjoyment, I have nothing more to say to you.) I’m going to try to meet you on your own ground and do my best to answer those honest questions that cause such a fuss. I write this as someone who is sympathetic to the broader rationalist project, who shares its values of free and open inquiry and debate, of logic and carefully constructed argumentation, of searching out the truth, however uncomfortable we may be with what we find. (You might be surprised at how many people on the left share these values, even if they don’t articulate them using the same language. In positioning myself like this, I am not trying to set myself apart as Not Like Those Other People protesting systemic oppression on the left. I am writing this in the hopes that my fluency in the language of rationalist thought will help make the rationalist community — a community that I feel at least loosely affiliated with — more understanding of and dedicated to issues of social justice.)

Read More

The Spigot and the Chute

I have a lot of feelings. I know, I know, this is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. But still, it’s true: Going thru life, I have lots and lots of feelings about the things I experience.

I also write music. And unlike some composers, I explicitly want my music to be emotional, to express feelings and to get people in the audience to feel things in turn.

Are these things related? Do the feelings I have in my day-to-day life translate directly into the art I make?

Well, yes and no.

Read More

Stages Are Magic

TOMORROW’S THE DAY. I’m giving a recital! Of music for bassoon! And sometimes piano! Some of which I wrote! And it’s open to the public and I have heard Reasonably Authoritative Rumors that there might be Real Actual People there! Which is very exciting! And also very nerve-wracking!

And yet, despite the fact that I can already feel the jangle and buzz of pre-performance anxiety, I’m pretty confident that come 3:00 tomorrow, I’m going to be fine. 

It’s all about the head game. Much of my thinking on this can be traced back to Jeff Nelsen, who gave several master classes on performance anxiety when I was at the BU Tanglewood Institute Bassoon Workshop in 2009, but over the years of living it in my own performing life, I’ve added my own wrinkles and drifted into ways of preparing that work for me. (I’ve also picked up a few handy shakes from the Bulletproof Musician blog, which I highly recommend following if you’re a performer yourself.) The core of it is this:

Nothing can go wrong on stage.

Read More

The Great Divide

There’s a lot of music out there that I fell in love with the very first time that I heard it. From Holst’s Hammersmith to Higdon’s concerto for orchestra, there are many pieces out there that I latched onto at my first exposure and never looked back. As you might expect, I listen to these pieces a lot. Not on a constant loop, necessarily, but considerably more often than I listen to other quality things that stock my iTunes and Spotify libraries. Whenever I have a strong, specific urge to listen to piece X, it’s almost invariably for one of these pieces.

There’s also a lot of music that I’ve disliked quite intensely from the first time I encountered it. Babbitt’s Philomel is not my jam, and neither is Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin (SORRY NOT SORRY).  Needless to say, I hardly ever listen to these things, unless they wind up packaged on an album with something else I’m interested in or I have to for an academic class.

But there’s another category, too, one that I may actually listen to more even than the first category: Works I don’t understand.

Read More

Circle of Tints

Despite having written about it twice before, it sometimes seems like a well kept secret that I have sound-color synesthesia. I do! This means that I “see” colors when I listen to music, but it also — and more importantly for today’s post — means that when I sit down to write music, I start by imagining colors, and those colors guide me to the sounds I need. Over the years that I’ve been composing, I’ve built up a pretty robust system of key-color associations, and today I’m going to provide a peek under the hood and actually list them out.

Read More

Future by Flyby

New Horizons successfully made it past Pluto! At long last we have actual images of the once-planet's surface! It's all tremendously exciting and there have been many times over the last few days where I've given myself over to giggling and bouncing around with joy at this momentous occasion. I grew up when the Voyager planetary tours were already a fait accompli, and I'd always kind of resented that the decision had been made (for very good reasons, to be fair) to skip Pluto in favor of exploring Titan. Pluto was an enigma, sketched in with best guesses in the astronomy books I devoured as a kid, visible in photos as nothing more than a few distorted pixels.

That's all different now. Pluto may no longer be an official planet, but I think I'll always think of it as one, and the pictures New Horizons is sending back feel like the completion of something that's been nagging unresolved since the 70s. And personally, too, it feels like the completion of something else.

Read More

Songs and Sommeliery

If you ever have me over for dinner, don't break out the fancy wine.

I won't be offended by it — I don't have some strange and idiosyncratic vendetta against expensive libations — I just won't appreciate it.

I have four basic categories when it comes to appreciating wine: Undrinkable, Not My Favorite, Decent, and Wow This Is Good. Beyond the most rudimentary language of dry vs sweet, I have almost no way of describing what I like; my palette is unrefined and promiscuous, perfectly happy to lap up the cheapest grocery store offering or the fanciest private reserve — and completely incapable of telling the difference between them. The complex, florid descriptions on the backs of bottles, the earnest, enthusiastic recommendations in wine stores? Completely meaningless to me. I can smile and nod as the words go by, but ultimately I'd get about the same amount of comprehension from a lecture in advanced quantum mechanics.

This isn't the fault of some defect on my tongue. I have no doubt that, given time and training and bountiful samples to sip from, I could develop my ability to dissect all the nuanced flavors that expert sommeliers pick out. I might not be able to become the very best wine taster in the world, but I'm sure I could become decent enough to have strong opinions on what I should pair with my next meal. I could totally do that.

I just don't want to.

Read More

Why I Listen to Music I Don't Like

This past week was the Next on Grand festival down at Disney Hall, a series of concerts celebrating contemporary American composers. I couldn't attend every single one, but I caught the bulk of them, my bus pass getting a strenuous workout in the process. Seeing this behavior, you might well think that I was rather besotted with the repertoire, in love with the pieces on the program.

By and large, I wasn't.

Read More

Indestructible Architecture of Sound

This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, . . . is music complete. This doesn't just mean it's beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you're not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can't. It will expose everything you've mastered and everything you're scared of. And I don't just mean about the violin. I mean about everything. It'll show all that today, and it'll show all that when you play it again in 10 years.  And people who know music, who've seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you've become.

Read More